Angry with God
Year A, Proper 20, RCL, Track 2
Jonah 3:10-4:11, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16
You may remember the parable of the Rich Young Man who comes to Jesus and asks “what do I need to do to enter the kingdom of Heaven?” Jesus says, keep the commandments… then sell all your possessions and follow me. But the young man left upset because he had many possessions. Jesus goes on to say that it is “with difficulty that a rich person will enter into the kingdom of heaven.”[i]
Peter, in his head, seems to calculate the situation and he realizes that the kingdom of heaven is open to everyone; those who have followed Jesus from the beginning and the latecomers alike. Knowing that he and the other disciples have already done what Jesus asked of the young man he says “We have left everything and followed you. What then will there be for us?”[ii] Jesus says, your reward will be great but so will anyone who left their house or family or their work to follow me. Thus, “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”[iii] This is the background we need to know when reflecting on our Gospel today.
Peter seems to think that they should be treated better or perhaps have a bigger reward than others because they, the disciples, have already done what is expected. For most of us, this seems to be a reasonable understanding or even expectation. If I work more hours than my neighbor, I should receive more compensation. If I work harder, I deserve the promotion. We typically reward others, either explicitly or implicitly, by the number of hours they work or how much effort they put in. This is the way our society and much of the world works. And for the most part, there is nothing wrong with this. But it does becomes a problem when we want to apply this type of economic thought to the kingdom of heaven. By doing so, on some level, we dictate to God how entry into the kingdom should be measured or judged. But Jesus tells us that this is not the way God works. So he gives us today’s parable.
In this parable, we again see how the workers, who worked the entire day, believe they should be paid more than the ones who only labored for a few hours. They claim that it is not fair to receive the same pay. We the reader can be a bit more objective. We realize that the workers who labored the full day are not being mistreated. They are receiving the standard daily wage of one denarius. This is what they agreed to. But since they are the ones who are upset they don’t have the same clarity as we do. Why should they care if they are paid $100 for the day and their neighbor gets $100 for just one hour? But our lessons don’t end here.
Today we also encounter Jonah who is upset with God. He seems to be angry for a couple of reasons. First, God had mercy on the Ninevites when they changed their ways. Jonah seems to be all geared up to watch this mini apocalypse. He was looking forward to relishing in the misfortune of the people who he never really liked. (Now I know this feeling may seem very foreign to the good Christian people I’m speaking to here today, but it is my understanding that there are people who enjoy watching the misery of people they don’t like.) Anyway, Jonah was angry because he thought those nasty Ninevites didn’t deserve
God’s mercy. He felt that he and his people, the Jewish people, were the entitled ones. So, he runs away to be by himself. He builds a little shelter so he can stew in his anger away from God. But like so many of us know from personal experience, and like Jonah should have learned the first time he tried to run away from God, we cannot hide from God especially when he wants our attention.
Jonah is angry. The wrong kind of people are receiving God’s mercy. And God tries to give Jonah a lesson by giving him a plant for shelter. This plant seems to offer better shelter than the hut he built for himself. In one night it grows, Jonah enjoys its shade for that day, and the next night it dies. Jonah becomes angry that this bush, his comfort, suddenly died. He is upset because his wishes and desires are not the same as God’s.
I don’t know that God desires bad things to happen to us. God, as far as I know, has never caused one of my plants to die. I’m perfectly capable of doing that on my own. But suffering is a part of the life God has given us. Jonah, in his misery, thought it might be better to die than to continue. In this respect, Paul seems to agree that it would be better to die; for being with Christ would be much better than being here. But Paul knows that it is not God’s will for him to leave yet. He still has work to do; even if this work is hard and involves suffering.
Paul puts this choice of life and death in God’s hands. He says God “has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ but of suffering for him as well.” Paul says you have the same struggle that I have had and that I still have. Together or separately we share struggles in life. These struggles are common to all of us. But to think we can have a life or even deserve a life without struggle is again putting our wishes and desires above God’s.
God gives mercy to those who have known him all their life and those who have come late in life. God gives mercy to those who repent, even if they do not worship the same way as we do. And God has mercy on those who are struggling, who are in pain, or who suffer. God gives mercy to all people who turn to him because his ways are not the ways of the world. God loves us and by turning to God, we receive God’s grace, regardless of what we have done or what others think about us.
I need to mention that this question of life or death is real. It’s a question that both Johan and Paul consider. It’s a question that many people wrestle with each day, especially now in this time of isolation where we may not see our friends and family as much as we use to. If you are suffering in such a way, I want you to know that you are not alone. That you can reach out to someone in your life. That you can reach out to me. I’m here for you and I believe others are as well.
Artwork: Jonah Under the Gourd Vine, Unkonow Artis 208-290 BCE. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved September 18, 2020]. Original source.